I'll never forget the day I told my cousin I was adopting a child. Her response caught me totally off guard. She first asked "When are you planning to retire?" Then she threatened me with death. Not as in, "I'm going to kill you." It was more like, "It's too late for you to start parenting because you're going to die."
It's the sort of thing I might have ignored from a passing stranger, but this was someone I looked up to as a big sister. I had always known her to be oddly critical. She was the kind of person who would tell you your nail polish didn't look good on your hands, or she might criticize your artwork because it had a white person instead of a black person in it. But I had grown to ignore her dark side and concentrate on her kinder moments, like the time I was 4 years old and she drove me from Lewisville to Hope, Arkansas, to go swimming for the first time ever. And the time she made me a long satin dress so I could march in her wedding. We looked more alike than sisters and I adored her.
So when I decided to become a mother, I naturally wanted to share the news with her. But instead of congratulating me, she scolded me for being irresponsible. A person my age - i.e. past the age of 40 - was too old to become a mother. Not only would it delay my retirement - because apparently you can't retire with a child in college - but at my age, I would likely die before the child grew up.
She was a practicing physician, so she had ample examples of women who died before their children graduated high school. She ticked off story after story of unfortunate mothers, the circumstances of their deaths, and how their children's lives were blighted by the loss.
The conversation left me feeling sick inside. It was as if she had pronounced a death sentence on me. Her words poisoned my happiness. Could she be right? Would I die before my child grew up?
Panicked, I set up a battery of diagnostic procedures. I scheduled a mammogram and a pelvic exam. I had an upper G.I., a colonoscopy, and a liver ultrasound. I even had my ears checked and cleaned by an ENT. I did everything I could to assure myself that I would be my child's forever mother.
But even after my precious girl arrived, I still had a sense of foreboding. Every night as I collapsed into bed, exhausted and discouraged after dealing with a screaming toddler all day, I felt my cousin's judgement. I could hear her voice saying, "I told you so. I told you you were too old to do this." I wept daily for two years. I became convinced I was a bad mom.
Then 5 years into motherhood the unthinkable happened. A bad mammogram. Breast cancer.
My initial and strongest response to the diagnosis was shame. SHAME! Your initial response to news like this should not be shame. It should be a paralyzing sense of loss or - and I'm reaching here - fear of death! But in my case, the fear of death was edged out by shame. A shame so pathological that it might as well have been the carcinoma growing in my breast.
Surely this disease was my punishment for daring to become a mother. It was my penance for robbing an innocent child of the opportunity to be raised by a younger, more vibrant woman, perhaps a mother who loved arts and crafts and family movie nights and long afternoons at the park. If it hadn't been for me, my daughter could have been blessed with a mom who carried snacks in her bag.
Instead she got stuck with me, an almost old woman whose idea of fun was playing piano and growing gray hairs. She got a mom whose values were mired in the late middle ages, a mom who made her eat her vegetables, a mom who insisted mac and cheese wasn't real food, a mom who refused to allow the mobile phone to be used as a toy. I didn't carry snacks in my bag, and at age 5 I insisted that she learn to sit quietly through church service without the aid of a coloring book or electronic device.
The other moms in my circle thought I was over the top. Now they would have something else to chew on. Soon they would be whispering behind my back, "Poor Hal. She should have known she was too old to raise a child." But what if I could keep this from them. Maybe I could be treated with radiation, then no one would be the wiser, especially not my darkly prophetic cousin. If I could keep this secret, then 5 years from now, when I was reasonably out of the woods, I could mention in passing, "Oh yeah, I had breast cancer once. Oh, you didn't know that? It was a long time ago. I had forgotten all about it."
But as tests progressed and showed the extent of the disease, I was prescribed chemotherapy. That meant there would be no hiding. I would lose all my hair. I would be exposed. And with that realization, all the anger I should have felt 5 years before exploded inside me, transforming me into a warrior woman. Out of nowhere, the voice of Gandolf the Gray came to mind giving me a new and powerful mantra: "YOU. SHALL. NOT. PASS!!"
The mantra played in my head daily, hourly, as I decided that I would take this to the mat.
"YOU. SHALL. NOT. PASS!!"
I skipped all pretense, even the wigs. Weeks before chemo had time to take effect, I went to a salon and had my hair buzzed off, transforming myself into G.I. Jane. With the hair gone, I had a new and powerful attitude. I would stand up for me. I would stand up for my daughter. I would stand up for my life. And I didn't need anyone's permission to do so.
"YOU. SHALL. NOT. PASS!!"
The best antidote to death is life, so I would live full out. I stopped wearing black and started wearing bright colors. I stopped wearing studs and embraced dangly earrings. I stopped dealing with people who didn't lift me up. I stopped dealing with my cousin.
"YOU. SHALL. NOT. PASS!!"
Months later, I'm cancer free. I have mostly reconciled my age with the right to be a mother, although I still keep an eye out for people like me, people who delayed parenting until later in life. Women and men who married late due to careers or other circumstances, or people who were delayed by reproductive challenges. I eagerly note women who actually gave birth in their 40s. I note them and mentally hug them to myself because they are like me, which shores up my perspective.
I also notice the so-called "age-appropriate" parents who deal with health challenges, regardless of how young they were when they began their families. As far as I can tell, heart ailments, intestinal diseases, diabetes, autoimmune conditions, and cancers are not respecters of age. Sometimes people just get sick.
So perhaps the truth is, no mother knows how long she's going to live. When we're young, we assume we'll have long days. When we're older we HOPE we'll have long days. But those days are not promised to any of us, so all we can do is move forward in faith that whatever comes, things will turn out for the best.
Hal Hutchison, M.Ed.
Hal Wofford Hutchison, M.Ed., is a former columnist, writer and editor for the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette newspapers. She has also been a secondary educator, and a university counselor and administrator. She lives in Little Rock, Ark., with her husband of 23 years and their daughter.